Foreign Aid: Harmful or Helpful?


In April, we launched the first session of our four-part educational series focused on the importance of human development and social support in Haiti.


This series was inspired by the overwhelming response to our opinion piece in the Philanthropy Journal encouraging all of our colleagues in the NGO world to be “part of the solution that equips and empowers Haitians for independence, autonomy and self-sufficiency” or "Stay Out of Haiti!"


Session 2 focuses on how various forms of aid for developing countries like Haiti can often perpetuate the problems it is attempting to solve. We explore how well-meaning attempts to help can actually cause lasting harm and encourage generational poverty by providing resources and services that should ultimately be generated by local individuals and communities. And we review how the Overture International Social Support Model is designed to equip those we serve to break free from dependence and gain the knowledge, skills and tools they need to become self-sufficient.


Read more and then join us in a discussion on June 22nd or 24th at 7:30pm ET!


Session 2 Overview: Perpetuating Generational Poverty and Dependence


We’re all likely guilty of it. Supporting that organization that offers to feed the world or at least feed a child or family for just pennies a day. We’ve seen the ads with the rail-thin children surrounded by buzzing flies and a parting camera shot of that look of desperation in their eyes. How in the world can feeding this hungry child be a bad thing? Believe it or not, we may be doing more harm than good.


In this blog post we want to share five ways we believe certain types of aid perpetuate generational poverty and dependence (and one example of when it’s needed) and five ways Overture’s Social Support Model is designed to end it.


First, let's start with one example of when we believe outside aid IS needed. Disasters are a great example of when emergency aid is a critical part of stabilizing a community. Whether it is a hurricane, earthquake, war or tsunami, these types of disasters cause devastation that requires importing food, medical and other resources and services to ensure residents have the essentials they need to survive until they can begin to provide for themselves. That said, we believe the ultimate goal of any aid, emergency or ongoing, should be to equip those being served to become independent and self-sufficient.


This brings us to the five ways we believe many aid efforts perpetuate generational poverty and dependence and how our Overture Social Support Model addresses each one:


1. Extends a crisis - while providing temporary essential resources in an emergency can have a stabilizing effect, ongoing aid can actually have the opposite effect. By reducing the need and urgency for local communities to provide for themselves, organizations actually create the need for persistent aid. And then once the organization pulls out, which they inevitably must, it leaves the community in the same if not a worse condition than before the crisis that precipitated the need for their support.

  • Overture’s approach: Through our Social Support Model any emergency response strategy includes a plan to move as quickly as possible from outside aid to in-community support across the five pillars (nutrition, housing, empowerment, healthcare, education). We accomplish this by providing education, training and resources that empower the community to rebuild, restore and replenish their own communities.

2. Perpetuates corruption - most developing countries struggle with various degrees of corruption. This corruption is often centered around the control of resources being imported and distributed within the country. Ineffective targeting is a result because the most powerful and influential players, beneficiaries of the corruption, ultimately decide where the aid is directed. Their actions reward their allies instead of serving those most in need of aid.

  • Overture’s approach: By focusing on empowering local individuals, families and communities to control their own resources, economy and infrastructure, the Social Support Model disrupts the traditional power dynamic that feeds corruption. When these communities gain autonomy they reduce the risk of negative influence by corrupt leaders and institutions and begin the process of developing their own leaders committed to serving the community interest, not their own.

3. Encourages self-destructive behavior - in addition to corruption, aid that continues beyond the emergency response stage becomes harmful because it can encourage destructive behaviors like hijacking, kidnapping and extortion. When significant resources enter Haiti they are immediately vulnerable to criminal gangs from the time they leave the port. And the risk increases exponentially as the trucks traverse through gang-controlled territories where there has been a consistent history of hijackings and kidnappings. Organizations not only put the supplies at risk, but they also put their team members at risk of being held for ransom or worse.

  • Overture’s approach: The Social Support Model encourages and facilitates local production of resources which ends the need to import aid and ultimately eliminates the risks associated with transporting and distributing it. Locally derived resources means a safer, more secure supply chain.

4. Diverts funding from more productive projects - money invested in harmful aid means that money cannot be invested in projects that develop long-term solutions. Billions of dollars are invested in poverty alleviating projects that use aid to create solutions. And while some of these are worthy of support and serve a valid purpose, the vast majority do end up perpetuating generational poverty and dependence.

  • Overture’s approach: When a donor invests in the implementation of Overture’s Social Support Model they’re investing in the people and communities in southern Haiti. They’re investing in sustainable, locally-managed programs that are designed to empower individuals and communities to move toward independence and self-sufficiency. Our work includes programs that focus on farming, construction, medical care, education, food preparation and other critical skills that provide employment opportunities, produce needed resources and create a significant return on the investment of donors.

5. Negatively impacts the economy- As noted above, approaches to alleviate poverty that use imported aid may feed the economy of criminal enterprises and it contributes little if anything to the economic development of a family or community. It creates no products, teaches no new marketable skills and provides no sustainable means of production. So, rather than being a neutral influence, harmful aid actually negatively impacts the economy of a community by limiting its ability to grow and prosper. This means individuals and families become dependent on aid, not on their own skills, determination and drive.

  • Overture’s approach: Empowering economic independence for individuals, families and communities is at the core of the Social Support Model. All five pillars (nutrition, housing, education, healthcare empowerment) provide opportunities to learn marketable skills, foster productivity, and identify areas for economic development and growth. From training teachers, farmers and healthcare workers to developing home building and food packaging programs, Overture donors are investing in creating sustainable communities built on a solid economic foundation.


Overture International is working each day to end the need for it to exist. Because when we’re successful, Haiti will be filled with strong, independent self-sufficient communities no longer in need of aid of any kind. Until that day comes, we’re committed to speaking against aid that perpetuates generational poverty and dependence and to empowering our friends in southern Haiti to live to their full potential of experiencing independence and autonomy.


We hope you will continue to join us in this important mission!

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